Posts Tagged Jane Eyre

Getting to the truth about strong women and troubled teenhood – novelist, playwright, essayist, writing coach Martha Engber @MarthaEngber

Martha Engber is a wordsmith in multiple ways. You’ve met her briefly – when she asked me to write a piece about my horse. Her most recent release is a YA novel, Winter Light, but that’s just one aspect of Martha’s art and work.  So here she is in full – editor, playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, writing coach, journalist.

Roz What’s the core Martha, your recurring themes, the character types you’re most interested in? And where did they come from?

Martha I grew up in a nuclear family of two older sisters, a mom and a dad. My mom strongly believed women should be independent financially and in action, a sentiment with which my dad agreed. As such, my sisters and I mowed lawns, played to win, stood our ground in arguments and otherwise always believed females can do almost everything males can, other than pee standing up, which I’ve since learned females more talented than myself can actually do.

Roz I can see this will be a fun conversation. Sorry, you were saying…

Martha So running through all of my stories are girls and women such as 15-year-old Mary Donahue in Winter Light, i.e., strong in the way of strong females.

Throughout life I’ve been annoyed, no end, by cliched women characters who act like men with boobs. They talk tough, they fight like ninja, they’re brought into stories to be tortured or killed as a means of providing male characters with that final burst of motivation to win the day.

Roz Give me the better version…

Martha Women are awesome at working together. They’re flexible both emotionally and creatively. They’re willing to help one another and ready to try, and try harder, and try harder once again using all available resources and every ounce of passion and intelligence. And no, they don’t hate men. Quite the contrary: they work with males, while at the same time always angling to create new paths for moving forward.

My next book, for which I’m seeking a publisher, is about two young Native American women warriors of opposing tribes. How they challenge one another can only be described as very female.

Roz Tell me about Winter Light.

Martha It’s a story about what I witnessed in high school during the blizzard year of 1978-79. The characters are dealing with alcoholism and addiction.

Roz How did you ensure the details were correct? For instance, the alcohol and addiction aspects wouldn’t be handled in a 2020s way.  

Martha I used my yearbooks and memories about fashion and music, and research to refresh myself regarding the politics and cultural events of the time.

Roz I love the post you made on your Facebook page, about your protagonist’s cherished concert T-shirts. And this, her playlist. Why was YA the most suitable approach?

Martha Actually I had no intention of writing a YA novel. I wrote a literary story.

I grew up when there was no “YA.” My favorite books were those that didn’t pull any punches: To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, The Outsiders, Lord of the Flies. Such stories left me with lots to think about and opened my eyes to the strife others suffer.

Both as a teenage reader and as a writer, I hated the idea of an author dumbing down a story for me in order to make parents feel less vulnerable to problems that take place somewhere within all families.

While I didn’t witness alcoholism and abuse in my nuclear family, I heard and could see those harsh stories taking place almost right next to me. Stories that weren’t cute or cliched or focused on a sweet teen romance. Instead, they involved brutal truths about our species, that if we’re abused and unhappy, we pass on that misery and ugliness. Only those who are strong, smart and get a helping hand rise to overcome their lot in life.

Initially I was disconcerted to learn my story would be categorized as YA, just because of Mary’s age. But I’ve since been encouraged by two facts:  50% of YA readers are adults, and many contemporary YA books take on tough topics, such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas.

Roz You describe your work as literary. There must be a hundred definitions. What’s yours?

Martha Thank you so much for asking! Over the years, I’ve honed this definition: a story for readers who like to puzzle over human nature.

Roz You have another novel, The Wind Thief.

Martha The story literally arose from the fact I love winds of all kinds: breezes, gusts, headwinds, tailwinds, etc. I began to imagine winds as sentient, with different personalities and motives. I gave that belief to the main character, Medina, who allows that fantasy to envelop her in an emotional cocoon to protect her from a tragedy she suffered when she was a girl.

The research was fascinating, which is one of the reasons the book took me 10 years to write, though honestly, I seem unable to sufficiently plumb the depths of any story in a shorter time period. I typically work on a story until I don’t see even one more connection I make or one more angle from which I can view the characters’ actions.

Roz I love this. I’m also a long-haul writer. You’ve also been a journalist, with hundreds of credits in the Chicago Tribune. Any specialities?

Martha I enjoyed writing medical stories, since science is so fascinating. I also enjoyed the features that took me on one adventure after another. I’ve toured a haunted hotel; spent time talking to ice fishermen in sub-zero weather; met Imelda Marcos, the infamous Filipino First Lady who accumulated a vast shoe collection; and witnessed amazing dance and music troupes that include the Kodo Drummers from Japan.

Roz I’m envious of those experiences. What rich ore for your work. Speaking of rich ore, you’ve distilled your editing knowledge into a book on character development. Why characters?

Martha Characters are the story!

If writers develop their characters properly and let those characters lead, those protagonists will write an exciting plot.

Most readers only know if they like your book or not. If you were to question them closely, though, they’ll comment first and foremost about whether they love your characters, meaning they find them consistent, believable and admirable.

Like most writers, I failed at most of my initial characters. Then I realized throwing readers a lot of details about characters tells a lot about them, but doesn’t give readers what they need most, the one detail that explains how a character ticks. And that’s the concept of Growing Great Characters From The Ground Up.

Roz What writing craft question are you most commonly asked?

Martha At the beginning of workshops I ask participants what questions they’d like to have answered, and this is almost always on the list:

How do I find my protagonist’s motivation?

That leads directly into character development, which ends up looking like this:

character’s defining detail —> what they’re most afraid of —> what they’re motivated to do (run away from that fear!)

The plot consists of pushing them toward that greatest fear by placing ever bigger obstacles in front of them until they run straight into their worst fear. Boom!

Roz The arts are something we never truly master. There’s always more to learn. Even if we’re also teachers. Where do you do your learning?

Martha I think creative brains are like bottom-feeding fish: we’re constantly sweeping up every morsel for possible nutrients.

Biggest problem-solving moment: in semi-sleep just before I wake up. Most significant moments of enlightenment: while deep into editing a scene in which the characters are only inches away and I can see and hear and feel them.

Greatest generation of ideas: art museums –

Roz Me too. Museums and galleries are like drifting through a beautifully curated dream.

Martha … and the journeys of other creatives, especially podcasts like Hidden Brain and documentaries like My Octopus Teacher that explore how humans think.

Roz So what’s your writing process at the moment? Does it change from book to book?

Martha I continue working until the story gets less terrible.

Seriously, every story begins as a huge pile of dung. Then it’s a matter of using my shovel to find that stupid, irritating, tiny, brilliant gem within.

My writing life would be a lot simpler if I stuck with one style and genre. Instead, I write poetry, experimental short stories, journalistic/opinion/personal essays, historical fiction, etc. But I like that variety, and understand each story deserves its own shape.

Roz What are you working on at the moment?

Martha A memoir. Only within the last few months have I managed to wrestle the damn thing to the ground. What’s emerging is a poetry-prose hybrid that captures my personal upheaval. While not perfect, the story now has its own quirky, appropriate dwelling.

Secondly, I’ve started a book for writers based on my workshop regarding show vs. tell, and what a misconstrued piece of advice that is.

Roz Oh, it is. I explained it in one of my books and an author wrote to me and said: thank goodness, I’ve never understood it before.

With editing, journalism, workshops and running an author career, how do you find time for your own creative writing?

Martha Juggling time commitments is so tough! I want to do everything before I croak, which makes me busy, indeed.

I most likely have undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which means I have a high need to move. I do so every day: hiking, biking, running, surfing, etc. Energy expended, I can then sit down to think in an orderly manner. I’ve followed that behaviour pattern since I was a kid: dance around, then write.

Creative writing is my zen, meaning the deep place I go to meditate on life. Once I’ve taken in information about the world through my other activities, that writing time is when I get to chew on the ideas and pull out every possible nutrient, whether for a poem, short story, book or other project.

In a good day, I’ll get two hours of creative writing, one-and-a-half hours of marketing and one hour of writing planning (workshops, new story ideas, submissions). That allows me the other hours to work out and train my clients. I’m also a fitness instructor and personal trainer.

Roz Tell me about that. I’m also a gym fiend. (And guys, you can find Martha’s fitness blog here.)

Martha Woohoo!

Roz Body Pump, running, dance, horse riding…

Martha It sounds like you and I need to work out together sometime! After this pandemic, come visit.

Roz I used to suffer from RSI but discovered that the more exercise I do, the fewer problems I have with shoulder, wrist and back pain. Also, it’s an utterly necessary complement to the world of imagination and words. Of course, I think about work while exercising. Nothing stops me thinking. But the thoughts come differently when my blood’s up. If I’m chewing on a story problem, I take it for a run and I find a solution that’s more aggressive and daring than if I sat at a desk… I found the midpoint of my last novel that way. (Here I wrote about writing and exercise.)

How about you? How does fitness professional Martha merge with writer-journalist-editor Martha and how are they different?

Martha The beauty of a creative brain type is that creativity sweeps across every moment of my day. Every choice I make, whether going for a run, making chocolate cake or mapping out a story, are all just variations on the need to squeeze out every possible moment of enlightenment.

The trick to accomplishing that goal is to daily move amongst a healthy swirl of activities, because each feeds the other.

The body is very much a chemical lab, and each body represents a unique mix of chemicals. No matter your capacity for movement — people are different in what they can do — some type of movement is necessary to circulate blood and oxygen to the brain so we think better and have the energy to create.

And when we create, we make the world a better place.

Roz We do. Thank you, Martha.

Find Martha’s website here, her blog here, and tweet her @marthaengber

If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, find my latest newsletter here and subscribe to future updates here.

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I name this book… tips for choosing a good title

3919477288_8ff29f2eda_oFor every manuscript I see with a head-turning title, there’s another with a title that’s limp, unassertive and would never tempt a reader to look closer. Or a title that’s too tricky to remember.
I had a great discussion about this recently with Peter Snell (you know, from Barton’s Bookshop) in our show for Surrey Hills Radio (find it here, on show number 10) and I thought it might be fun to elaborate on it further.

Numbers are powerful
For non-fiction, you might add a sense of value by putting a number in your title. 50 Tips To Help You Build A House sounds like it offers far more than just Tips To Help You Build A House. Numbers also create a sense of insider knowledge, that an expert has chosen just the tips you need and discarded the others. When Peter and I recorded the show in the bookshop, we’d set up the microphone in the countryside section, where there were plenty of titles like 100 Finest Country Houses. One book might have country houses, but the 100 Finest sounds more persuasive. Suppose another book of country houses misses out the best ones?
Tip: a non-fiction title should sound authoritative, assertive.
For fiction, numbers can add a sense of frisson, a specific tipping point – Catch-22, Station Eleven, Fahrenheit 451. They seem to say ‘at this moment or place, or with this concept, something significant happens’. (And look at the startling oddness of Fahrenheit 451. The unconventional word order stirs up a sense of disturbance. Ray Bradbury’s titles all have this quality.) 1984 is a clever shuffling of the date of the novel’s publication. We can imagine how sinister it must have seemed in 1948. This will be us, it seems to say. Come and see. (Is anybody currently writing 2041?) Anthony Burgess wrote a tribute to Orwell’s novel and, naturally, called it 1985.
Tip: numbers are good for attracting attention.

‘One’ is special
In our discussion, Peter mentioned One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and took us in a new direction. This title suggests a person on their own, the one who dared to go against the crowd. It conjures up a character. It also seems to speak for all of us while also being about one individual.
Continuing the power of One, David Nicholls’s One Day sounds momentous; simple yet significant. It’s also a common phrase, with overtones of hope and dreams.
And how about The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo? (Bafflingly, its original Swedish title translates as Men Who Hate Women. Perhaps a Swedish-speaker could explain if the original has a special quality that makes up for the apparent blandness.)
Tip: consider the bold and emblematic individual, time or event.

What’s in a name?
We like a sense of a character in a title. Names can conjure this up, but they might be hard to remember, especially if the name is used in isolation. If you read a post or a feature about a novel called Mary would it stick in your mind so you could find it later? Memorable titles will set up a little more. A Prayer for Owen Meany: why does Owen need to be prayed for? Or they might set a tone of irony – The Book of Dave. Or grab attention with a clever phrase – Memento Nora. The Rosie Project. Each Harry Potter book had a promise of adventure – The Philosopher’s Stone, The Deathly Hallows. (Also she was writing a series.  Harry 2, Pottered About Some More, might not have done the trick.)
Tip: if using a name, add something to create a sense of curiosity.

Made-up words, or words that are difficult to pronounce
Years ago, I made this mistake with my first novel. I set my heart on calling it Xeching, after the meditative treatment performed by characters in the future part of the book. It seemed to carry resonance, but only if you knew what it was, of course. Agents pointed out that it was too hard to remember, not to mention incomprehensible. It’s perhaps the absolute showcase of a disastrous title – it means very little and is hard to spell. (I was thinking with my designer head, imagining it in a big, intriguing font on the cover.)
Your unwise title may seem to have many points in its favour. But will this meaning be apparent to somebody happening on your book for the first time?
You might create a striking effect, though, by mis-spelling a word, if the mis-spelling is easy to remember. A novel about murders in the cyber-age might be called Killr.
Tip: tricky spellings and made-up words are hard to ask for in bookshops and difficult to find in online searches. And that’s assuming they’re remembered at all.

Personality of the book
Some titles snare us with a sense of personality. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her Own Making. Kill The Poor by Lemony Snicket (itself an eye-catching nom de plume). Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Instability is good
Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall carries a promise – something must be done before time runs out. Look at the tension in Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. John Steinbeck’s East of Eden is potent with downfall. New twists on famous quotes or concepts are easy for readers to remember.

Words that suit the genre
In our radio discussion, Peter remarked that certain words seem to embody the appeal of a genre – and mentioned angels, demons. (Though I threw a spanner in the works by mentioning Marian Keyes’s Angels, which is chick-lit. Or did I throw A Spaniard In The Works like John Lennon?)
The treatment of the title also tells the reader a lot. My friend David Penny is preparing to publish his historical crime novel, Breaker of Bones. I saw a conversation about it on Facebook where another friend (who didn’t know Penny’s work) asked why it wasn’t Bone Breaker. That would be an entirely different kind of novel.
Tip: look up genres on Amazon and on Goodreads lists to see if there are words and title styles you should consider.

Sum up a feeling – how memorable is it?
The least successful titles I see are when the author is trying to sum up a feeling in the book. These often become generalised and vague. Finding The Answer. The Past Returns. All My Tomorrows. Husband Dave came up with clever suggestion here. If you think of a possible title, tell it to your friends. Then, a week later, ask them if they can remember it. (Try to pick the friends who don’t have superhuman powers of recall.)
The Mountains Novel (now Ever Rest) might have been christened Comeback. This certainly fitted in some ways with the story. It was pithy. However, when I googled, I found reams of novels called Comeback, many of them in the crime genre – a rather misleading flavour.
Not only that, I couldn’t remember Comeback. I simply couldn’t. In my mind, it became Countdown, though lord knows why. If it couldn’t stick for me, it certainly wouldn’t for a reader. Anyway, Ever Rest suits its mood far better.
On the show, Peter Snell added the bookseller’s perspective on commonly used titles. It’s a right royal pain to find the book the customer actually wants.
Tip: Once you’ve identified a feeling or theme you might highlight in a title, you can brainstorm strong, striking and emotive words for it.

Again, how memorable?
If your name is well known, you don’t have to try that hard with the title. Readers know to look for the next book by you. They’re more likely to find you by searching for your name, not your book title. On the show we discussed how the fantasy author Jack Vance (whose work I love) has many titles that are little more than labels (The Planet of Adventure, Trullion).
Daphne Du Maurier, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte all got away with name-titles (Rebecca, Emma, Jane Eyre). But they were writing in less competitive times. Would Lewis Carroll have got very far if he’d published Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland today?

Thanks for the pic Lisby

Oh, and speaking of titles with a number

lf3 audio ad

Have you any tips to share on coming up with titles? Do you find it difficult? If you have decided on a title, what others did you consider? How did you make the choice and why?

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In your character’s shoes: give your everyman character a strong presence

Seven thingsSome central characters are intended to be a proxy for the reader – a person who’s thrown into a situation and acts as a conduit for the reader to have the experience.

However, there’s a big pitfall with this kind of character: writers are sometimes reluctant to make them people in their own right. They’re worried about being too specific and instead they create a bland nobody.

These are the symptoms of the nobody everyman:

The character doesn’t react to dramatic situations

– because the writer assumes the reader will apply their own reactions. But readers don’t want to do this. They want to share the character’s reaction. I particularly see this in writers who learn a lot of their storytelling from films and TV. But novels are an internal medium, a landscape of emotion, and the reader needs to be guided more.

In prose, if the character doesn’t react, it looks as though the event made no impression on them. In any case, you can’t guarantee what a reader’s reaction will be, and that it will be the one you want. (Readers certainly aren’t everymen!)

The character has very little history, background or personal preferences

Again, the writer is afraid of making the character unlike the reader, and so they don’t fill in any home background, hobbies or back story. This makes them look curiously empty. Think of when you meet somebody for the first time – there are certain things you want to know about them. What they do; whether they have kids; what hobbies they have. In real life, we need context about people. And so do readers.

They’re passive

Because the writer doesn’t want to presume any reactions, they make their everyman character wait around for the more interesting people to cause adventures. This can make us wonder why we are spending the most time with the dullest person. Even if the viewpoint character is surrounded by troublemakers and simply wants a quiet life, they need to fight back instead of being pushed around. That’s not to say the other characters can’t get them into scrapes; but our main character must also seem to cause some of the situations they find themselves in. If they simply wait to be shepherded, it’s frustrating to read about.

So how do we write an effective everyman character?

Is there even such a thing as an everyman character? We are all different. My reaction to a life dilemma won’t be the same as yours. If our characters are to be convincing, it doesn’t make sense to leave them as empty vessels for the reader to fill.

And besides, if we look at what readers respond to, it’s not as superficial as tastes, social background etc. Readers respond to something that’s deeper down – and that’s emotions that are universal for everyone: fear, difficult choices and dilemmas.

If you evoke those well enough, the reader will put themselves in that character’s shoes regardless of their circumstances or even the era the book was written. Think how many classic novels are still finding new readers because their protagonists strike a chord. A lonely orphan becomes a governess and falls in impossible love with her employer – Jane Eyre. A timid, inhibited girl is overwhelmed by her new position as wife in a grand house – Rebecca. These aren’t everyman characters by any means, but we connect with their stories and experience them vividly. It doesn’t matter at all that they don’t do what we would do, or that their circumstances are not like ours. They have loneliness, dilemmas and fears, which is enough to put us in their shoes.

So don’t make your everyman viewpoint character an undefined nobody. Make them a definite somebody who, deep down, is exactly like us. Let’s discuss some great viewpoint characters in the comments!

nyn2 2014 smlNEWSFLASH This seems a good moment to mention that I’ve got a whole bookful of advice on characters. And the eagle-eyed among you will notice that the title has been tweaked. Why? I realised the original title Bring Characters To Life was rather ho-hum and didn’t explain why you should go to the effort of making characters believable. So it’s now called Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated – which is, of course, what it’s all about. Plus it scores better for SEO, which should work magic in searches (nobody would think to search for Bring Characters To Life unless they already knew about it). The new cover and title will take a few days to percolate through all the sales channels, but if you buy it you’ll get the updated look. Do you think it’s an improvement?

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